Olmert Begins Testifying, Declares 'I Am Fighting for My Life'

Former Prime Minister is first witness to take the stand in defense phase of corruption trial against him, in what his lawyer calls a 'chance to share his side for those who want to listen'.

Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert began testifying Tuesday at the Jerusalem District Court, opening the defense phase of the ongoing corruption trial against him.

As he took the stand as the first defense witness, Olmert began to tell the judges his life story. When they tried to cut him off and direct him toward the issue at hand, Olmert said: "Maybe these sound like stories from a distant past, but they have to do with who I am and what I represented, not the person that they are making me out to be."

Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert
Emil Salman

"It is very, very important that you recognize the person I believe I am," Olmert declared. "I am fighting for my life here and nothing else."

Defense Attorney Eli Zohar called the opening of Olmert's testimony phase "a chance to say what is on his mind and share his side for those who want to listen."

"We intend to respond to every charge and claim, even those without a shred of truth, in order to remove any doubt regarding Mr. Olmert's behavior," Zohar said at the beginning of the court session.

"To that regard, we request a lot of patience and a lot of tolerance."

On Monday, the court turned down Olmert's request to postpone his testimony for two weeks for medical reasons.

Individuals close to the former premier said he does not intend to battle the prosecution from the witness stand.

"Olmert has already been through several [difficult] situations in his life, including ordeals even more stressful and more nerve-racking than this," said one. "He's not planning any fights or polemics. He has no intention of turning this into a boxing match, but will address [the charges] seriously."

Over several court sessions, Olmert will respond to the three main charges against him: double-billing nonprofits for the same overseas flights and using the surplus to fund personal vacations, receiving cash-filled envelopes from American Jewish businessman Morris Talansky, and improperly interfering in decisions at the Industry Ministry's Investment Center. Most of the alleged offenses occurred while he was either industry minister or finance minister.

Among the issues that Olmert is expected to be asked about is the testimony given by his good friend, attorney Uri Messer, who said he kept hundreds of thousands of shekels in cash for Olmert at a safe in his office, and by his travel planner, Rachael Risby-Raz, who said Olmert was fully aware of the double-billing.

The trial is expected to continue through the summer, at least.